Cook County Commissioner Jesus Garcia (D-Chicago) introduced at a county board meeting today an amendment to the county’s human rights ordinance that would give legal recourse to people with federal housing vouchers that landlords discriminate against.
The amendment to the 1993 county law (PDF) has seven co-sponsors, meaning at least eight of the 17 commissioners, or one short of a majority, already support the measure, including board president Toni Preckwinkle (D-Chicago). Garcia anticipates the ordinance will pass through committee in two weeks, and then swiftly see a vote by the full board.
But amendments to the human rights law have been attempted before without success, thanks partly to opposition from landlord groups, including the Chicago Association of Realtors. A message to the realty group this afternoon was not returned.
Public housing advocates long allege that Cook County landlords routinely turn away people with housing choice vouchers, formerly known as Section 8 vouchers.
The human rights ordinance outlaws discrimination based on “source of income.”
But landlords may turn away people because they have a voucher, which is a federal Housing and Urban and Development (HUD) subsidy that more or less covers the difference between the market rent of a property and a tenant’s income. To qualify for a voucher, someone must earn less than 50 percent of the area's median income, and often must be willing to have their name on a waiting list for years.
A 2008 study (PDF) from the city's Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing found that turning voucher holders away is often a pretext for turning away low-income tenants. It is also used to turn away racial and ethnic minorities – particularly those trying to move into a majority white neighborhood.
“People have generalized views about who are the voucher holders are,” Garcia says. The reality, Garcia claims, is that many people on vouchers are low-income working residents or people on disability.
Garcia estimates that there are 12,000 voucher holders today in Cook County. The number of voucher holders jumped when the Chicago Housing Authority and HUD launched a public housing “Plan for Transformation” in 2000 and tore down public housing. Many of those tenants were handed HUD vouchers and told to find a new place to live.
Chicago city law already bans discrimination against voucher holders, but residents with vouchers are often not aware of their rights.
“When a complaint is filed it does work very well,” says Kathleen Clark, executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing. “Unfortunately, people who are often seeking housing just go on to looking at their next apartment.”
Garcia acknowledged that the city anti-discrimination law is unevenly enforced. He said he might include a “marketing and education period” before the county law is put into effect.